"Do the Jews Own Anxiety?"
June 14, 2012, 08:11 AM
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From the NYT: "Do the Jews Own Anxiety?" by Daniel Smith.

And yet who could dispute the fact that, when it comes to unabashed, even triumphalist declarations of collective neurosis, the Jews have had the market locked down for a long time — so much so, in fact, that they are the only ethnic group I know of that members of other ethnic groups will unabashedly declare to be suffering from collective neurosis. The relationship between the Jews and nervousness is by now so widely accepted that it barely registers. The Chosen People, at least in the American consciousness, are the very image of of anxiety.

But there is a fundamental problem here: it isn’t true. That anxiety all-star team, were it actually to be assembled, would contain at least a couple of Jews — Moses at third, say, and Franz Kafka in right — but plenty of gentiles would make the cut, too. As the self-appointed general manager I’d offer contracts to Charles Darwin, who suffered from debilitating insomnia and panic attacks; to Emily Dickinson, who “lived on Dread” and almost never left the house; to William James, who spent a decade paralyzed by uncertainty, and his sister Alice, a nervous invalid (I’d put them at second and shortstop, respectively, so they could talk to each other); and on the mound, Soren Kierkegaard, who made anxiety not only a way of life but also a central philosophical concept, declaring (with suspicious exaggeration), “The greater the anxiety the greater the man.” 

In short, the Jews don’t own anxiety and never have. So why do so many people think otherwise? 

The answer to this question, I think, is that we, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious. We’ve done this by propagating the figure of the Neurotic Jew — our hysterical clown. 

When you think about the personification of anxiety — think quickly, without reflection — whom do you think of? If you are anything like me, what jumps first to mind are the great fretful Jews of American fiction and film: the harmless Tevye, portly shtetl hero of “Fiddler on the Roof,” foreshadowing decades of New World pathology to come with his Talmudic indecision (“On the other hand … on the other hand … on the other hand”); Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, the son of doting Newark Jews, raging to his analyst about his inability to reconcile his id and his superego, begging for help (“… it hoits, you know, there is pain involved, a little human suffering is being felt …”); the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, a nebbish idealist with a paralyzed will, nightmarishly unnerved by the conflict between his artistic ambitions and the vulgarity of Hollywood; and of course, above all, Woody Allen, in almost any of the 40-plus movies he has appeared in.


"Woody Allen" is a highly successful character invented by Allen Konigsberg, who was captain of his high school basketball team. He was making $1,500 per week in 1954 as a TV writer while still a teenager. (Woody Allen the character is to Woody Allen the entrepreneurial entertainer as Mark Zuckerberg the character in "The Social Network" is to the Mark Zuckerberg the billionaire.)

That Woody Allen churns out a movie per year, good, bad, or indifferent, suggests that his art might benefit from less self-confidence and more nervousness. 

 

Actually, what distinguishes Ashkenazi angst from that of the Germans and Nordics (we English-speakers have the word "angst" from Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard) is not greater anxiety, but greater extraversion, energy, humor, and self-confidence. As Smith implies, Woody Allen and Philip Roth don't churn out a movie or novel per year by being paralyzed by neurosis. Bernie Madoff worried less than was appropriate for his situation. 

Instead, acting out feelings of angst in a comically exaggerated fashion is, I would guess, a shtick that Yiddish-speaking or German-speaking Jews picked up from Germans and made funny. Nervousness made Germans better organized, richer, and more powerful than the more lackadaisical Slavs, so Ashkenazis imitated Germans rather than Slavs in this, as in so much else. 

Borat captures how Ashkenazis traditionally viewed Slavs as happy-go-lucky goyishe kops, but the real Slavic problem is excessive inclination toward philosophizing rather than planning. When I was staying in the Russian countryside in 2001, I ran into a situation where I desperately needed to make a call home to my wife. All the locals helpfully suggested courses of action, but each time Plan A failed, they had no interest in generating a Plan B. They saw the failure of Plan A instead as a welcome opportunity to philosophize warmly with me about the inevitable frustrations of life in this vale of tears. Finally, a visiting Dutchman came up with a Plan B that worked. 

In contrast, Sephardic Jews and Oriental Jews in Israel and America are not known for being big worriers. Persian Jews in Los Angeles, for example, don't seem to worry much about Iran getting the Bomb. They're more into planning their next family reunion in Tehran. 

I don't know how far back German worry-wartism goes, but I wouldn't be surprised if Prussians cultivated anxiety as a motivational tool in response to disorganized Germany being kicked around by the rest of Europe during the Thirty Years War. 

In general, the enormous impact of German culture on Ashkenazis is being forgotten, but it's hard to make sense of, say, Freud, Einstein, and Marx except as Herr Professors-types from a German cultural background. 

A stereotype in mid-20th Century American movies was the unworldly professor with the thick German accent, such as the chimpanzee researcher who assists Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo: Gentile or Jewish? I couldn't tell. But definitely a product of the German world's famous universities. The last such character I can recall in an American movie is the German-accented UCLA professor of meteorology whom Howard Hughes hires in Scorsese's The Aviator to help him get his WWI airplane movie finished and becomes Hughes' scientific advisor.

In the 21st Century, there's a growing tendency to rewrite Jewish history solipsistically, with no outside contributions except persecution. It's all the Golem of Prague and the like. The problem with this is that Ashkenazi culture was self-constricted and claustrophobic until Moses Mendelssohn and a few friends noticed in the later 1700s that the Germans weren't as poor and backwards anymore as Jews traditionally assumed, and thus launched Reform Judaism and the Jewish Enlightenment in imitation of the Enlightenment.